First Year in London: Lessons in Negative Capability

“Not wrong, just different.”

Valerie‘s mantra for overcoming culture shock

Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of my arrival in London. This afternoon I attended a reading at Keats House in Hampstead. Four volunteers read poems and excerpts from his letters dealing with the concept of Negative Capability. This ability to remain “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” is something I have cultivated in my writing process, and admired in the work of others. However, it occurs to me that living in London has exercised this quality in my life as well.

My first time living abroad has also been my first time living outside of California. Stepping off the curb while looking in the habitual (but wrong!) direction can cause a visceral shock. But the same can happen in conversation. Learning to navigate the labyrinthine streets of London can feel stressful and overwhelming. Likewise, the literary terrain. And semiotic estrangement produced at least one new poem.

Challenged with startling newness, the temptation is to make a split-second decision: either “they” are doing it wrong, or I am. But neither decision is sustainable, or leads to positive adjustment (for there are more of “them” than me, but in the end, I have to live with myself). So instead, I have been repeating my English wife’s third-way statement, which she used extensively while living in California: “not wrong, just different.” This in itself expands my capacity to abide the contradictory.

Also, faced with so much newness, the temptation is often to compartmentalise. Packing experiences into suitcases and labeling them neatly gives a temporary sense of order, and abstraction is necessary to shuffle around concepts in the act of complex thought. Still, besides the obvious peril of categorical error, living among the suitcases is a poor substitute for living in appreciation of their unique contents.

In one of his letters, Keats describes “the chameleon poet”, one with no colour or identity of his own. I have been able to pass, from time to time, as a Londoner (at least until I open my mouth). But more than a superficial changing of spots, I have found both a definition by contrasts of what makes me American, and a connection through universality to what makes us essentially human. I have harnessed the sense of being an outsider into my work, and made it my work to resist tidy conclusions in my art as well as my life.